20 September 2013

What’s with the Wallaby lads?

News emerged this week that at Perth Airport last Sunday morning Wallaby player, James O’Connor, was forced off a flight by Australian Federal Police. He was reported to be in an intoxicated state.

Sympathisers may say that he had a tough game the previous evening against Argentina and as he had a few days of holidays coming up, probably pulled an all-nighter. All that may be true but still, even under the circumstances, it is wholly unacceptable.

It’s not the first time a sportsman or even an Australian Rugby player has found himself on the wrong side of negative publicity.

Now in case we get a little smug in this part of the World, just this week Manu Tuilagi plunged himself in hot water for making ‘bunny ears’ behind David Cameron at a photo shoot outside 10 Downing Street. This was a follow on to his cold water plunge into Auckland Harbour at RWC 2011 just less than two years ago.

It is astounding in the world we find ourselves, with a twenty-four hour news cycle, the internet, social media and the proliferation of camera phones and video recorders, that players make such silly errors in judgement. You would expect at their age these young men would at least understand that when they are in public, the eyes of the world are on them. But somehow that fact seems to go completely over their heads.

Should we react to each and every event of this nature with shock and horror? Hardly. But maybe the Australian Rugby Union needs to sit up and pay attention.

James O’Connor is without doubt an extraordinary rugby talent and an intrinsic part of the Australian squad since he first burst on the scene as the second youngest Wallaby in history, against Italy in 2008.

But his latest misadventures is just the most recent in a list of previous blunders:

  • August 2011: Suspended for one match and given a suspended fine after missing the Wallabies’ official Rugby World Cup 2011 announcement.
  • June 2013: Photographed at a Melbourne fast-food outlet at 4:00am, with Kurtley Beale, the week of the Wallabies 2nd Test against the Lions.
  • July 2013: Fails to attend a Wallabies team meeting after a loss to the Lions at ANZ Stadium.
  • July 2013: Released by the Melbourne Rebels despite being a Wallabies regular. The Rebels state the franchise is “entering the next phase of their development”.
  • September 2013: Removed by Australian Federal police from Perth Airport after the Wallabies’ win against Argentina. AFP reports he was intoxicated.

The worrying aspect to all of the misadventures is their recent increase in frequency.

If James O’Connor were the only problem child for Australian Rugby, then life would be relatively simple. But he is just part of a small family of problem children within the Wallabies set up. The other contenders for the fly-half or full-back positions, Quade Cooper and Kurtley Beale have also caused controversy on numerous occasions. Given their ages, O’Connor 23, Cooper 25 and Beale 24, one would expect them to become the backbone of the Wallaby back-line through to RWC 2019. But at the current rate of transgression the ARU will have their hands full keeping them on board.

Cooper’s indiscretions have been catalogued since 2009:

  • December 2009: Charged by police with burglary. The charges were withdrawn after completion of a justice mediation process with the complainants.
  • October 2010: Tri-Nations in Hong Kong pushed Richie McCaw in the head after Australia scored the winning try against New Zealand.
  • August 2011: Cooper was accused of deliberately kneeing Richie McCaw in the head. But at the subsequent SANZAR judicial hearing in Brisbane the charge was dismissed.
  • June 2012: Cooper, along with Kurtley Beale, was accused of getting caught up in a scuffle with security guards at a Brisbane hotel.
  • September 2012: Cooper tweeted comments regarding his thoughts on the Wallabies’ set up, which included criticizing the style of play under coach Robbie Deans and a “toxic environment” within the set-up. He also claimed he could not and would not in future play for the Wallabies under those conditions. As a result he was fined a record $60,000 (of which $20,000 was a 2-year suspended sentence) and given a suspended three match Wallabies ban.
  • June 2013: Just hours after being omitted from the Wallabies Squad for the Lions Test Series, was attacked in a Brisbane hotel bar.

The fact that Cooper was born in Auckland has always made for a fractious relationship with New Zealand and he has done little to mollify the situation. Last June, was it his fault that a local decided to attack him in a local bar? No. On that occasion he did nothing wrong. But he should have known better than being in a bar at that time, given the sensitivity regarding his non-selection for the Lions series.

Unfortunately some of Kurtley Beal’s transgressions have been underpinned by his relationship with alcohol. One has to sympathize with anybody who bears that cross. But regardless of the underlying cause of his problems, he has still attracted negative Media attention.

  • June 2010: Beale, along with Quade Cooper, was accused of getting caught up in a scuffle with security guards at a Brisbane hotel.
  • March 2013: Beale was sent home from South Africa with cooper Vuna after a late-night incident on the team bus ending with him punching Vuna and the Rebels captain, former Wales #8 Gareth Delve.
  • May 2013: Beale was suspended, by the Rebels, for a breach of “behavioural guidelines”.
  • June 2013: Photographed at a Melbourne fast-food outlet at 4:00am, with James O’Connor, the week of the Wallabies’ 2nd Test against the Lions.

Once a player gets capped for his country, he immediately assumes celebrity status with the media, which in this day and age means being under constant surveillance when in public places.

The point these players seem to miss is they have a “brand” and one could argue if they decide to damage “their” brand by their own actions then it is theirs to damage. But it is not that simple.

They also represent the brand name of their clubs, the Wallabies and the ARU who are ultimately their employers. Bad publicity damages those brands, which creates negativity with the public and is likely to scare away fans and sponsors of the brand.

It is the public and sponsors who create the income that pays these players sizeable salaries. Apart from damaging their own image, if they only took into account the potential damage they could do to the people who support them financially, they might think twice before acting.

The ARU have been criticised for not dealing with these players more rigorously and giving them too many second chances. What should also be slightly disturbing for the ARU, is that these players were in each other’s company during some of the indiscretions.

It’s possible the ARU feel they are between a rock and a hard place. An Australian back-line without O’Connor, Cooper and Beale would be a lot less potent. It is also possible that these players will just cross codes and play Rugby League. On that basis the players may feel like they have the ARU over a barrel.

At the same time if the problems continue to persist it will inevitably damage the Wallabies brand. It is a difficult one for the ARU, but just because it is difficult doesn’t mean it should be ignored. The ARU will argue they are not ignoring the problem but are dealing with it on a case-by-case basis. Considering the cases continue to mount up, it would strongly suggest the message is not getting through.

These indiscretions also risk damaging the culture within the Wallabies squad. Others may look at the behavior and feel if it is somewhat acceptable then they have little to lose by travelling a similar path. It is something that will surely concern Ewen McKenzie.

It is also fair to say that outside these three particular players, the Australian Squad have been extremely well behaved. But perception is reality in the marketplace and it only takes a few incidents and everybody gets tarred with the same brush. Maybe in time these guys will mature and see sense or maybe not.

It is something the ARU cannot leave to chance and must address. Unfortunately for Head Coach, Ewen McKenzie, he will have his part to play in that process. Incidentally, it is the last thing he needs at this moment in time.